Horse War



Maybe there’s a touch of gaucho in his blood. He was born in Buenos Aires, after all, to Argentinian parents. Certainly there’s a large dose of artistic talent, as Franco Cuttica is the son of an internationally celebrated artist, Eugenio Cuttica, once a finalist at the Venice Biennale and collected by corporate giants such as Sony, Aiwa, and American Express.

The younger Mr. Cuttica has taken over the family’s sideline business of creating life-size horses made almost entirely of recovered driftwood. The first horse was sculpted in 2006 by his brother, Lautaro, as a love offering to a girlfriend. But Cupid’s arrow missed and in a state of heartbreak, the 15-year-old wanted to burn the horse. 

Instead, the family decided to use it as a lawn sculpture in front of their house on Newtown Lane in East Hampton, which they had rented so that Franco could attend the Ross School, where he says he gained an intense contact with nature that would be the trigger for all of his work. A far more rudimentary version of today’s powerful, almost-breathing beasts, the original horse nonetheless caught the eye of a passer-by who paid the artists $2,000 and took it home.

The brothers, along with their father, decided to get a production line going as a way to earn some extra money over the summer. 

They sold about 20 that summer, for between $500 and $2,000 each. The horses were much smaller then and more abstract, says Franco, who continued to perfect their form over the next 

few years, while his brother and father returned to painting. Today, he seems to possess an uncanny eye for driftwood’s fluid forms, carved by the waves, that lend themselves perfectly to the grace of equine features.

The Newtown Lane horses were not the first. An artist in Maine claims to have been making life-size driftwood horses and moose for more than 40 years; bargain versions can be seen in seaside destinations in New England and up into the Canadian Maritimes. A British sculptor, Heather Jansch, has also been acclaimed for her wooden horse sculptures, since 1972. 

They are not the last either. About four years ago, Franco noticed a garden-ornament version — executed with less artistic finesse — popping up in Water Mill. Rather too close to home. 

“I saw a dip in my sales after those horses appeared, which was really annoying,” he said on a recent afternoon. “I don’t know who the artist is but the horses are really simple, like mine when I first started.” He feels they appear more fabricated and carved, less individualistic, and no longer resembling driftwood.

For Franco, the wood has to do most of the work. “I intervene as little as possible, with very little trimming. The wood takes on its own form,” he explained, and indeed his sculptures have a strong presence, somehow giving the sense of being alive. They are solid, too, each weighing about 300 pounds, sturdy enough to withstand the elements.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery but for the young artist it forced him to explore new directions to win new clients. 

Using his driftwood scrap collection, heaped in a giant pile in his backyard, he began making 8-by-8-foot collages of faces with smaller, bleached bits of knobby wood. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln now sit in his backyard, watching over three life-size horses in a row. In the middle of the jumble are a couple of vintage sports cars, part of his father’s collection. A sign next to the Cutticas’ back door reads Trust Your Crazy Ideas.

The driftwood ex-presidents led to commissions for portraits of Bob Marley and Nelson Mandela for a music producer who represents Ziggy Marley. Franco was also recruited to create a life-size bison, which he found immensely satisfying because of the size and heft of the animal. Then Serene Green Farm in Sag Harbor commissioned him to build a giant whale’s tail. The appendage is currently on his front lawn, rising out from the earth, enormous and splayed. He will carefully transport it on his trailer to the farm, where he will add the final flourishes to fully capture the raw spirit and freedom of the creature.

Right now, says Franco, he is no longer bothered by the copycat horse sculptures, although he needs to explain often the difference between those and his. For now he is happy to keep evolving as an artist and to concentrate on his latest experiment: creating giant portraits, using only a blow-torch. “I literally burn the canvas to create the shading and facial features,” he said, showing a startlingly detailed, sepia-hued rendering of a goateed face.

As he was describing his blow-torch handiwork, his father entered the studio. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to the portrait, “this is something really beautiful.” 

And then he left.

Franco hopes others will share his father’s enthusiasm for his work. He wants to sell enough this summer to buy a secondhand trailer and travel through the United States. He will head to Washington State, he said, as well as coastal areas, where he expects to find lots of driftwood to make more animals, hopefully sell them, and keep going.  

Judy D'Mello